He found her in the front row, a small girl leaning shy on her Daddy's arm. In the slanting rays of late summer when the hydrangeas grow tall and leggy, the maestro played keys in a tiny white chapel.
Maybe she would come to the piano and help him play a song? He showed her what he practices everyday and they played it together. He looked only at her and she at him. We knew we were witnessing something all too rare - a hushed and simple kindness, attention to the small. This winter I ran into her Daddy and he told me she is still playing it. We all are.
The church came as a surprise, nestled on a corner lot hidden in a neighborhood in the small town of Canby, Oregon, thirty miles outside of Portland. I was immediately smitten as I usually am with tiny, white steepled churches. Mike pulled up to the curb and we tumbled out, the first ones to arrive. I was already peeking over the picket fence at the garden, and the quaint chapel with it's Gothic details like fondant on a wedding cake. The sign on the corner between slender pointed-arch windows read "Canby Pioneer Wedding Chapel est. 1884".
This was a fundraising concert for Door to Grace, a non-profit that does good, hard work with hurting children. I arrived early to help set up an outdoor area for mingling after the concert. We set up guest tables, a spread of appetizers, and a wine bar all on tableclothes beneath a tent enclosed by a tall picket fence, all in white.
The setting was a wonder in every way. It was a summer evening, a magical time in Oregon when the light is long, the air cool, and the rain is off on vacation. To get to the garden, I walked the uneven brick path behind the kitchen and out under two rusty iron arches. The hydrangeas were massive clouds of pink, pale green, and creamy white. The light kissed the heart-shaped leaves and the top of the steeple cross before slipping below the spire. What is better than this? I was about to find out.
The pianist donated the place, his time, and his remarkable talent. I had never been to one of his concerts, but I knew his reputation as a talented and generous musician. His downtown Christmas concerts always sold out. Even though this was a summer concert, I had visions of his arrival, if not in a tuxedo with tails, perhaps a crisp summer suit, so I was surprised when he sat down at the baby grand piano dressed in khaki shorts and a polka dotted Nike tee.
When his fingers touched the keys, the sanctuary filled with happiness. Our small audience spread out on wooden pews sat quietly, relaxed, content with the fading light of the stained glass windows making the room glow. Then his eye caught the small girl in the front row, the daughter of a friend of mine. He invited her up to the piano bench and she sat next to the maestro. With some gentle coaxing, they played a tune together. He told her he could tell she practiced and that was the most important habit she could create to become a musician. When she sat down again next to her Daddy, she had stars in her eyes.
She still had twinkly eyes when we all gathered under the white tent, and still when we cleared the tables, stacked the chairs, and swept the brick walkway to the hydrangea garden in the back. Mike and I talked about it all the way home, how it was so small, but we knew in our bones we had just witnessed a pivotal moment in a child's life. The power of being seen, of careful attention, of being invited in where you might not think you belong or you're ready to go. I wanted it for our children, and our grandchildren, those Wonders. Heck, I still wanted it for myself.
And then it dawned on me. I have it. My children have it. The Wonders have it, too. We look for it our whole lives, but we already have it. Dallas Willard says it as only he can, "The first act of love is paying attention". But he was only saying what Jesus did so naturally in his life. The gospel of Luke tells this story of Jesus paying attention to Zacchaeus,
He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way — he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by. When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him.
We are seen.
It doesn't matter if we are truly small or just feel small. Just when we think we are the ones scrambling up the nearest tree, trying to gain stature, straining to see him, surprise, our friend Jesus has already seen us. But here is what else I learned that summer night in a small chapel. We have it within our might to give our attention to small things and offer such happiness and love to those in our lives that they feel seen, too. I've been having fun throwing my attention around like there is no end to it because really there isn't. That doesn't make it cheap. Paying attention can be the most valuable thing we do with our time, - noticing people, welcoming people, calling them by name.
Paying attention can be the most valuable thing we do with our time, - noticing people, welcoming people, calling them by name.
Just last Saturday when there was dinner to cook for a small crowd, I left the broccolini and sat next to Sweet Pea - just sat with my arm around her and told her I was glad she was here. Her eyes lit up like the stars and when I got up, she asked me to come back.
That noticing and taking a moment to show it hasn't always come naturally for me. I can be a hurry up girl with a long lists of tasks on my mind. But I have a tender place in me that is touched when I am seen. Not in a public way, but in a small moment way.
One that comes to mind now, I have remembered since college. I was in my freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin living in a massive dorm, so big it had its own zipcode. My Resident Assistant passed me in the long ugly hallway, looked right at me, and called me Christmas Eyes. She saw me. But it was more than that. She wasn't a believer yet and I had just started truly believing enough to let it shine, only I didn't know it was showing yet. She barely knew me, but I think she unknowingly glimpsed God in me. And I think he had already seen the both of us. Her noticing and nicknaming me told me so.
Another small moment when I felt seen is painted on my bedroom wall in the first house where we lived in Houston, Texas - the one with the mustard yellow front door. When I was about eleven or twelve years old, my Mama let me paint a mural across the biggest wall in my bedroom. I painted a large leafy tree with branches overhanging my bed. From the one branch was a girl in a swing. It wasn't the mural per se, that was painted over long ago, it was that my Mama said yes to the idea and took me the paint store to choose the paint. It was that she saw me as a girl who had something to say on a wall.That could be the spark that sent me on to Architecture School at the University of Texas at Austin.
I have decided with Melanie Shankle from her book Church of the Small Things,
"I've learned that the best way to live is to look for God in the church of the small things. The church of the small things is where God does his best work. The church of the small things is where the majority of us live every single day."
See what you can see this week. Have fun paying attention to your everyday life and your everyday people. Pause for a small moment and call out what you see. Use their name, call them by a nickname, tell them something they may not know but is so obvious to you, even if only in a glimmer. Give that heart a chance to glow, and maybe later, grow more deeply into it. Light up the skies with their eyes.